New Wellcome Collection exhibition – Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime

An exciting and FREE new exhibition has opened in London that will be of interest to many crime fans.

>> Following a £17.5 million development, Wellcome Collection has opened a major exhibition exploring the history, science and art of forensic medicine. ‘Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime’ travels from crime scene to courtroom, across centuries and continents, exploring the specialisms of those involved in the delicate processes of collecting, analysing and presenting medical evidence. It draws out the stories of victims, suspects and investigators of violent crimes and our enduring cultural fascination with death and detection.

‘Forensics’ contains original evidence, archival material, photographic documentation, film footage, forensic instruments and specimens, and is rich with artworks offering both unsettling and intimate responses to traumatic events. Challenging familiar views of forensic medicine shaped by fictions inspired by the sensational reporting of Victorian murder cases and popular crime dramas, the exhibition highlights the complex entwining of law and medicine, and the scientific methods it calls upon and creates. It surveys real cases involving forensic advances, including the Dr Crippen trial and the Ruxton murders, pioneers of forensic investigation from Alphonse Bertillon, Mathieu Orfila and Edmond Locard to Alec Jeffreys, and the voices of experts working in the field today. << Wellcome Collection Press Release.

Image courtesy of Wellcome Trust

The exhibition, curated by Lucy Shanahan, has five sections:

‘The Crime Scene’ investigates the different techniques used to record the location of a crime and its power both as a repository of evidence and as a haunting site of memory. It includes one of Frances Glessner Lee’s ‘Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death’ – one of twenty miniature dollhouse crime scenes created by the American heiress and criminologist in the 1940s and 50s. They are still used to train police investigators in observing and collecting evidence today. You can listen to a BBC Radio 4 programme about them here (thanks to Sarah Hilary for the link).

The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

‘The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death’ – Image courtesy of Wellcome Collection

‘The Morgue’ traces a history of pathology, from Song Ci’s 13th century Chinese text ‘The Washing Away of Wrongs’, often seen as the first guide to forensics, to the celebrity pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury (1877–1947), whose autopsy note cards are displayed for the first time.

Image courtesy Wellcome Collection

‘The Laboratory’: Edmond Locard founded the first police crime laboratory in early 20th century Lyon and his simple theory that ‘every contact leaves a trace’ (now known as the exchange principle) guides the array of disciplines, including serology, toxicology, microscopy, criminal profiling and DNA analysis.

Police crime laboratory, Lyon

‘Every contact leaves a trace.’ Image courtesy Wellcome Collection

‘The Search’ considers the reconstructions of movement and identity required in looking for missing people – both individual cases and mass disappearances. It includes a newly commissioned artwork by Šejla Kameric that seeks to recover the human stories behind the critical mass of statistics and data generated by the on-going identification of massacre victims in the 1992-95 Bosnian war.

‘The Courtroom’ section explores the final test of forensic medicine’s success, as evidence is gathered and presented in the courtroom in pursuit of justice.

William Hartley – Courtroom sketches of the Crippen trial at the Old Bailey, 1910. Image courtesy Wellcome Collection

Doesn’t that look amazing? I’m already plotting my trip to London to see the exhibition, which I suspect will be fascinating and disturbing in equal measure. I have enormous respect for the expert and dogged work that forensic scientists do, so I’m looking forward to learning lots about the history of forensics and the amazing techniques it employs. At the same time, as the press release makes clear, the exhibition seeks to challenge the way in which forensic work is depicted in crime novels and crime dramas – and by extension, may jolt regular crime readers and viewers out of their sometimes overly comfortable fictional world into one that is altogether grimmer. I suspect that being confronted with real cases, techniques and investigations will a sobering experience. I’m also very interested in seeing how the artwork used in the exhibition provides a way of moving behind the science to the human stories and emotions that lie beneath, and how it explores our cultural fascination with crime. It really does look like a very thoughtfully designed exhibition that will engage visitors on a number of different levels.

The book accompanying the exhibition is by crime author Val McDermid – I’m keen to get my hands on this also (memo to self – no reading before, during or just after mealtimes).

The ‘Forensics’ exhibition, curated by Lucy Shanahan, is FREE and runs from 26 February to 21 June 2015 at Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE. For travel info, see here.

Further information about ‘Forensics’ is available via the exhibition website and the Wellcome Collection press release.

20 thoughts on “New Wellcome Collection exhibition – Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime

    • Interesting, Barry. Look forward to discussing with you when we meet. I can imagine that there are possible pitfalls when presenting that kind of material. How big is it? A room per section?

    • It does, Margot. Yes, it’s a shame it’s not permanent – frustrating if you’re not within easy reach of London (and the same applies in the other direction too…). The exhibition website is worth a look, though – lots of images and information, including other holdings that Wellcome Collection has on forensics.

    • Do you know, I’ve never been? Clearly a major omission, especially if there’s a good cafe involved 🙂 Hope you make it over soon.

  1. Went yesterday. Nicely presented and interesting. Felt there could have been a little more in the way of display and atmosphere. Lovely historical documents but I really would have liked maybe an entomology collection and less reliance on video. Loved the ‘Nutshell’ models, as had only seen photographs. However, it’s a quirky museum and very much appreciated the restaurant and bookshop.

    • Thanks very much for telling us about your visit, Karen. It’s always interesting to consider the strengths and weaknesses of an exhibition (my guilty pleasure is redesigning/tweaking them over a cup of tea afterwards). Will bear your comments in mind when I visit; good to hear about the interesting artifacts on display (especially the ‘nutshell’ models). Look forward to seeing those.

  2. Thanks Mrs P – I’ll definitely try and go to that (though i would hardly have thought that the Wellcome’s sumptuous premises were in need of refurbishment … 😉 )

    • Absolutely not! Avert your Hittys’ eyes! Fascinating crossover between the worlds of crime and dollhouse, which I find quite discombobulating. Looking forward to seeing them very much.

    • I was in London a couple of weeks ago and didn’t have time to go. Back up in the middle of April and have now scheduled a day to catch it in all its glory. Hope you make it! A friend has been and brought me back the exhibition guide. It really does look good.

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